Although Native American use of Mammoth Cave spans the Late Archaic to Mississippian periods, it was most intensive during the Early Woodland period (1000 to 200 BC). That is when Native cavers ventured several miles into Mammoth Cave.
Archaeologists have found evidence of Woodland period Native American cave use at five other cave sites within Mammoth Cave National Park: Salts Cave (15Ht4), Dixon Cave (15Ed225), Bluff Cave (15Ed176), Owl Cave (15Ed43), and Martin Cave (15Ed49).
Native people visited these caves year-round. They carried out a wide range of activities within the caves: habitation, exploration, mineral mining, ceremonies/rituals, and burial.
Native American explorers discovered over 19 miles of cave passageways within Mammoth Cave National Park. Pollen from a small sample of Mammoth Cave paleofeces (preserved ancient solid human waste) suggested that late spring-early summer and late fall-winter were the primary times Native people visited the caves.
Objects they left behind during their explorations and use of the cave included textile slippers, river cane torches, cane baskets, wooden climbing poles, and gourd and squash containers. They also drew pictographs (painted pictures) on cave walls using the charred tips of river cane torches. These pictographs consisted of cross-hatched, rectilinear, and spiral geometric designs.
Around 1000 BC, Native peoples began systematically mining minerals that naturally form on cave walls, like gypsum and mirabilite. Investigators have documented this mining throughout Mammoth Cave and in other Kentucky caves. Mineral mining evidence includes battering marks on cave walls, mussel shell scrapers/spoons, limestone hammerstones, and battering and ledge gypsum mining.
Native groups could have used gypsum as paint. Mirabilite has definite medicinal properties: when taken orally, it serves as a laxative. Its salty taste also means Native peoples may have used it as a seasoning and as a food preservative. Men, who probably made up the majority of miners, also may have held ceremonies within the cave for young boys coming-of-age.
After 200 BC, Native cave mining and exploration declined. This may reflect changes in Native beliefs and traditions.
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